A former student applied for a professorship this week. While she was interviewing, a professor, frowning, asked, “Is forgiveness always appropriate?” Following her answer, the professor was still frowning, even though she gave the correct answer.
Shall we address the question here? (All of you who might be asked the question in the future, take note: Just refer the frowning one to this blog post. Blame me for the answer so you do not have to take “the heat.”)
Is forgiveness always appropriate? Let us break down the answer a bit further first. When we pose the question, are we asking about the virtue of forgiveness itself or are we asking about a person? There is an important distinction here.
If our focus is on the virtue itself, we must then ask the question of all virtues (because forgiveness is a moral virtue), and we can do so by focusing on the question’s opposite: Is justice, for example, as one of the virtues, ever inappropriate? In other words, can you imagine a scenario in which you could be arrested for deliberately being just? If not, then justice is always appropriate, under all circumstances. Is patience ever inappropriate? What about kindness? I can hear someone say this, “Well, if someone is beating me over the head with a frying pan, I will not be kind.” My response: You can flee the abuse. You can try taking the frying pan out of the person’s hand. In either case, you can do so with kindness. Thus, even in this example, kindness is appropriate. It is not inappropriate if other virtues (justice, courage, temperance) come alongside kindness to help rescue the person from the head-banging.
My first point is this: Because all virtues are concerned with the moral good of human interaction, and because it is alway appropriate to exercise the moral good, and because forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is always appropriate to exercise forgiveness.
Now to our specific difference between the appropriateness of exercising the virtue as a virtue and a person’s psychology. Is it always appropriate for any given person to exercise forgiveness all the time? The answer here, in contrast to our first answer, is no, it is not always appropriate because: a) the offended person may be so shocked by what happened that he or she is not ready at this particular point in time to offer forgiveness; b) the offended person may need to learn more about what forgiveness is and is not so that forgiveness properly understood is exercised rather than some false form of it; and c) forgiveness is a supererogatory virtue, not demanded by society and therefore not demanded of any one person right now. It is the person’s choice whether to forgive or not on any given occasion.
Yes, if we are talking about the quality of this term, specifically its quality of being a moral virtue.
No, if we are talking about a particular person’s psychology, including the degree of hurt and the person’s familiarity with what forgiveness is, and the circumstances of the injustice, including its severity, its duration, and the time since it occurred.
“Many people are hesitant, even afraid, to forgive because they fear that the other will take advantage of them. Forgiveness is for wimps, I have heard many times. Yet, is that true? Is the offer of goodness, true goodness, extended from a position of your own pain, ever done in weakness? How can one offer goodness through a position of pain and see it as weak? And see the giver of this goodness as weak? My point is this: We all may need to delve more deeply into what forgiveness is so that we can make the best decisions possible for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the ones who hurt us.”
Excerpt from Chapter 3 of The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love by Dr. Robert Enright.
Suppose that Angela has been friends with Barretta who has neglected the friendship now for over a year. Barretta’s flaw is of a passive nature, not being present in the friendship. The neglect has hurt Angela.
Angela sees that Barretta is not a good friend and decides to end the friendship despite her active attempts to reconcile. At the same time, she forgives her. Her forgiveness leaves open a kind of sisterly-love for Barretta that now makes it more difficult to leave the friendship.
In this case, is forgiveness a process that is standing in the way of the truth: that Barretta will not make even a reasonably minimal friend for her? Her feelings of sisterly-affection, which are kept alive by forgiving, are making her re-think her decision to leave a friendship that holds no future if Barretta’s behavior remains as it is.
In this case, is forgiveness a weakness in that Angela retains affection that continues to hurt her? The short answer is no, forgiveness itself is not weakness, but the failure to make distinctions in this case could be the weakness. Here are some important distinctions for Angela to make:
1. There is a difference between forgiving-love and sisterly-love toward Barretta. Agape is a love in service to others as we see and appreciate their inherent worth. Philia (brotherly- or sisterly-love) is the kind of love that is mutual between two or more people. In the case of Angela and Barretta, the love is no longer mutual. If Angela makes this distinction, then she will see that philia no longer is operating between them
2. There is a difference between feeling warm toward someone and the pair acting on it in friendship. While Angela might feel a warmth for Barretta, kept alive by forgiveness, she cannot let her feelings dictate her actions. She must stand in the truth and do so with a strong will. A strong will works in conjunction with the soft feelings of forgiveness.
3. There is a difference between practicing forgiveness as a lone moral virtue and practicing it alongside justice. When forgiveness and justice are teammates, Angela is more likely to conclude that even though she has warm feelings for Barretta, there are certain troubling behaviors she shows that work against a true reconciliation (because Barretta remains without remorse, with no signs of repentance, and no signs of making things right).
4. While it is true that her vigilance in forgiving may keep alive agape love in her heart (with accompanying warm feelings toward Barretta), those feelings, while perhaps uncomfortable, are not nearly as uncomfortable or damaging as resentment. Forgiveness will not lead to a pain-free solution in this case. It will lead to standing in the truth of who Barretta is (a person of worth) and whom she is incapable of being to her (in the role of friend). It will lead to feelings that may be uncomfortable (the warmth of agape without appropriating this in a friendship with Barretta) but manageable. Angela needs to distinguish between the discomfort of a retained agape love and the considerably more uncomfortable feelings of resentment.
When these distinctions are made, forgiveness is not a weakness even in this example.
A person wrote to us recently to ask: Should I wait for the other person’s apology (repentance) before I forgive? Some philosophers such as Haber and Griswold argue that forgiveness is only legitimate if there first is an apology. And isn’t there a Bible verse saying that if your brother repents then you forgive him?
We are addressing the question here in the Blog (rather than in our Ask Dr. Forgiveness section) because of the lengthy reply and because we wish to give as many people as possible the chance to see and respond to the answer.
Some people reason that it is in the best interest of an unjustly-treated person to wait for an apology. Some reason that this is best even for forgiveness itself because it preserves the moral quality of forgiveness, by demanding something of the other, by trying to bring out the best in the offender.
While this latter point, waiting for the good of the other, is noble because the focus is on the betterment of that other person, I do not think that reason allows us to insist that this occur prior to our forgiving our offenders. I make three points in defense of unconditional forgiveness:
1. Forgiveness is a moral virtue and there is no other moral virtue in existence that requires a prior response from another person before one can exercise that virtue. For example, if you wish to be kind, does someone first have to do something before you engage in kindness? Does someone have to do something before you can exercise justice? No. So, why are we changing the rules of the moral virtues for this one virtue of forgiveness?
2. If our forgiving others is contingent on an apology (a prior response from another before we can act), then we are trapped in unforgiveness until the other acts. This would seem to violate the principle of justice: We cannot exercise a particular virtue, in this case forgiveness, even if we so choose. How fair is that?
3. You fall back to a supposed Biblical mandate in your defense of the conditional nature of forgiveness (the required apology). Of course, those who reject faith will have no interest in this third point (and I hope that my first two points are sufficient to convince them of the philosophical flaws in arguing for the necessity of repentance prior to forgiving). You refer to Luke 17:3, “”Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” Yet, this is not setting up a necessary condition for a person to forgive. Instead, it is setting up a sufficient condition for the forgiveness to occur. In other words, when you see your brother has repented, this is a morally adequate act for you to go ahead and forgive. Yet, there are other ways for a person to forgive, including the unconditional approach (no repentance has occurred). The context does not imply that one must–out of necessity–refrain from offering forgiveness until the other repents. This, in logic, is a confusion of necessary and sufficient conditions.
So, waiting for an apology is a moral good in only one sense: It challenges the other to change. I would like to clarify even this by making a distinction between internal and external aspects of forgiveness. It is not morally good to refrain from the inner work of forgiveness (struggling to see the inherent worth of your offender) prior to the apology/repentance. Why? Because goodness (in this case the moral virtue of forgiveness) is thwarted and cannot occur. It is only morally good if the verbal act of forgiveness (“I forgive you”) is delayed until the other changes (and in a genuine way) and at the same time is not delayed out of necessity.
On the other hand, unconditional forgiveness is morally good in at least three ways: 1) The one offended begins to see the inherent worth of the other as soon as the forgiver is ready; 2) unconditional forgiveness does not lead to the trap of unforgiveness based on another’s actions, and 3) the offer of forgiveness even verbally prior to the other’s change of heart may lead to such a change of heart. In other words, some people will repent when they experience the forgiver’s unconditional love. And even if they do not, forgiveness does not link automatically to reconciliation with the person. In other words, an unconditional act of forgiveness does not open the forgiver to further injustice.
Today, class, we will take an exam. It is a pop-quiz of sorts, to test your thinking about forgiveness, specifically with regard to what I am calling some of the “myths” of forgiveness.
See what you think.
1. Forgiveness is very much intrenched in popular culture right now, but the interest will fade, as all fads do. True or false?
Although interest in the topic of forgiveness may wax and wane through the generations and across cultures, forgiveness is timeless because, unfortunately, conflict and injustice are part of this world. As long as there are conflict and injustice, forgiveness will burn brightly.
2. For me to forgive, the other has to repent and apologize. True or false?
Although it surely is good when others repent and apologize, these are not necessary for you to forgive because forgiveness is a virtue and no other virtue requires a prior response from another person before you can forgive. Some say that the withholding of forgiveness until the other apologizes is a moral good because this then helps the offender to see the error of his/her ways and to make amends. Yet, no one who says this has convinced me that the reverse is not equally true: Forgive first and point out the other’s offense in the hope that he/she will respond to your offer of goodness and therefore repent.
3. It is better to stand up for justice than to forgive because justice will directly correct wrong. True or false?
Although the quest for justice is always good, this does not mean that we have to dichotomize justice and forgiveness and try only for one or the other. We can strive for justice and forgive as we do so. These two virtues are not mutually exclusive.
4. Once a person begins to show a pattern of devaluing forgiveness, it is likely that this will continue. True or false?
Although it is difficult to break habits, forgiveness education can and does change minds and hearts with regard to the topic. So often people reject forgiveness because they have been so very hurt in this world. Forgiveness acknowledges this pain and gently offers a way out of that pain. Never underestimate the power of genuine and effective pain relief.
5. Forgiveness is a good idea, but it is too hard. No one can truly accomplish it. True or false?
Because all of the other myths were false, by now I suspect that you said “false” to this one. My question, then, is this: Why is it false? One answer to consider: As we practice any virtue, we get more proficient at it. We need not reach perfection in any one virtue to be actually practicing it. We all practice all virtues in an imperfect way. The point is to try, and then as we try, we grow in proficiency in the practice of that virtue, including forgiveness.